I’ve developed two conditions related to my inner ear: tinnitus and vertigo. Birds and the precarious state of environments were my way into tinnitus in a long essay called “Ordinary Pandemonium: A Story of Noise,” published in the Mississippi Review. But I struggled to write about vertigo—it had taken a long time to recognize what was happening as vertigo, and it’s difficult to express disorientation in a form that isn’t too dizzying. And then MacDowell gave me time and space to let my mind both wander and connect.
I had read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. And I had become increasingly interested in poetry that uses visual elements to convey meaning (especially working on Tab Journal with the creative director, who is a graphic designer). So, when I started writing “Intrinsic Spin,” I was thinking about lyric and visual forms in ways that challenge traditional narrative. I think of the design of this essay as the Barrel of Monkeys game in which the player spills a pile of plastic monkeys onto the floor, grabs an arm, and then hooks that monkey’s other arm around another monkey’s arm without touching the second monkey. This gets repeated, hooking monkeys—or paragraphs—together one by one in a chain. Sometimes, the chain breaks, and then I start over, tossing paragraphs in a heap and rehooking them differently.
The visual elements each explain a concept all at once that I couldn’t put into words clearly and succinctly. The reader doesn’t need to perform the Epley maneuver, for instance, but the sense of a specific orchestrated sequence of movements is important to comprehend. In elementary school, we learn that the planets of our solar system move in big loops around the Sun, which determines the length of a year, and that planets spin, which determines the length of a day, but planetary precession is not as obvious or as important to how we measure time. I want readers to have a sense of precession as a tilted, wobbling world. Science and astronomy show up in my work often and look beyond the human-made world.
The biggest surprise was when the Flying Wallendas showed up. If they hadn’t, how could I have ended this essay with the trust we have in our bodies and the world to orient us? The Flying Wallendas are that marvelous combination of mind-wandering and connection that keeps me going.
ANNA LEAHY’s latest books are the poetry collections Gloss, What Happened Was:, and Aperture, as well as the nonfiction book Tumor. Her work has appeared at Aeon, Atlanta Review, The Atlantic, Bennington Review, BuzzFeed,Poetry, Scientific American, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her essays have won top awards from Mississippi Review, The Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She edits the international Tab Journal and has been a fellow at MacDowell and the American Library in Paris. Find her on Twitter at @AMLeahy.